BOX 2-1

Farm Typology Developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service

The U.S. farm sector is so diverse that statistics summarizing the sector as a whole can be misleading. The USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) has developed a classification typology to identify relatively homogenous subgroups of U.S. farms. The typology is based largely on farm sales, organizational structure, and the operator’s primary occupation. The farm classification developed by ERS focuses on the “family farm,” or any farm organized as a sole proprietorship, partnership, or family corporation. Family farms exclude farms organized as nonfamily corporations or cooperatives and farms with hired managers.

Small Family Farms (sales less than $250,000)

  • Limited-resource. Farms with gross sales less than $100,000 in 2003 and less than $105,000 in 2004. Operators of limited-resource farms must also have received low household income in both 2003 and 2004. Household income is considered low in a given year if it is less than the poverty level for a family of four, or it is less than half the county median household income. Operators may report any major occupation except hired manager.

  • Retirement. Small farms whose operators report they are retired (excludes limited-resource farms operated by retired farmers).

  • Residential/lifestyle. Small farms whose operators report a major occupation other than farming (excludes limited-resource farms with operators who report nonfarm work as their major occupation).

  • Farming-occupation. Farms whose operators report farming as their major occupation (excludes limited-resource farms whose operators report farming as their major occupation).

    • Low-sales. Gross sales of less than $100,000.

    • Medium-sales. Gross sales between $100,000 and $249,999.

Large-Scale Family Farms (sales of $250,000 or more)

  • Large family farms. Farms with sales between $250,000 and $499,999.

  • Very large family farms. Farms with sales of $500,000 or more.

Nonfamily Farms

  • Nonfamily farms. Farms organized as nonfamily corporations and cooperatives, as well as farms operated by hired managers. Also includes farms held in estates or trusts.


The mid-sized family farms (sales between $100,000 and $500,000) are examples of the prototypical “family farm” that has captured much of the public imagination and public policy debates over the future of American agriculture (Browne et al., 1992). According to the 2007 census, these mid-sized farms represented just under 10 percent of all U.S. farms, produced 16.5 percent of all farm sales, and managed another quarter of the nation’s farmland and nearly 30 percent of its cropland.

Small and mid-sized family farms together owned two-thirds of the total value of farmland, buildings, and equipment and managed roughly 60 percent of all U.S. farmland and cropland in 2007. Therefore, they will continue to play an important role in efforts to improve the environmental footprint of agriculture, and their experiences and activities will continue to shape the social and economic well-being of farm families and agricultural communities. Interestingly, the proportion of small and mid-size operations that have chosen to participate in federal land conservation programs is larger than that of

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